by Chris Clemens
As part of Explore Buffalo’s ‘Masters of American Architecture’ walking tour, I seized an opportunity to see inside and learn about a few important pieces of the city’s design and development. While the other stops on the tour were ones I greatly looked forward to, I’d be lying if I told you that I wasn’t on the tour specifically to be able to peek inside two of downtown’s religious gems, one of which was St. Joseph Cathedral. For $10.00 and a couple hours of walking, this tour gives attendees an opportunity to be led around a couple blocks of the downtown area and hear about architectural design features that may be plain as day and out in the open, but are seen in new light with someone pointing out subtleties and explaining the history behind them. I’m not always perfectly patient on guided tours with a group of people, but I’d say I did pretty good staying on track with the others and not wandering off….too much.
While the City of Buffalo was becoming a bustling metropolis in the mid-nineteenth century, the Catholic diocese of NY decided that Western NY could sustain its own and so was born the Diocese of Buffalo in 1846. The first of many Bishops, John Timon came to the area and would assume leadership of the region for the following twenty years. While there already were a number of churches present, none of them held the distinction of being a Cathedral, which is a designated ‘seat’ of the Bishop in a diocese. Timon began right away acquiring the land at what was then known to be ‘Webster Gardens’, but today is easily more identifiable as being on the corner of Franklin and Swan Sts.
In 1847 when the Cathedral was in its infant stages, the Erie Canal’s success was just beginning its third decade and construction in downtown Buffalo became exponentially easier with the trade route’s path ending just north of the city. Using the waterway to transport building materials not only made things easier and less expensive, but it also meant being able to use materials from other areas of the state, rather than having to quarry only locally. The dolomite limestone edifice all came from Lockport and made its way to the cathedral via a boat on the canal.
While the original plans included both a north and a south tower, it was only the south that was finished later in 1862. While the 112 foot tower itself is majestic, the clock and marble St. Joseph statue stand out among the external features. However, I always appreciate looking at the sometimes quick-glance subtleties of a building as well. The amber textured glass in the weather-worn metal lamps, the slate rooftops, the heavy wooden doors opening under a neo-Gothic archway and even the brickwork are all things you should take care to notice if you go visit. Doing so kind of reminds me of the The Sopranos episode where Tony is telling A.J. about his ancestors who single-handedly built a particular church they were looking at, brick by brick. Looking at the small details of a place like St. Joseph Cathedral become that much more interesting when you think about the sweat equity and hard labor that went in to the artisanal construction by immigrants.
Stepping in through the front doors you land immediately in the narthex of the building, a ‘lobby’ area common to Christian sites of worship. Once inside the sanctuary, the cruciform layout of the cathedral beckons visitors through the nave toward the altar. But, if you move forward too quickly, you’ll be sure to miss the stained glass windows and Stations of the Cross lining each side of the nave. I wanted to be able to present a bit more information about the windows to you, so I reached out to a friend in Buffalo for more information.
Greg Witul is one of the leading experts in stained glass windows in Buffalo as well as Buffalo’s Catholic history. He’s a published author, part of the founding team of the Buffalo Mass Mob, and all around super-knowledgeable, cool dude. When I asked him about the windows, he told me about some mis-information that has been floating around and had this to share: “Behind the altar are three windows depicting the Nativity, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. These were once believed to be displayed in the Munich Exposition of 1850 and donated to the church by King Ludwig I. Sadly this legend is just a story as King Ludwig I abdicated in 1848, there was no Exposition in Munich in 1850 and it is documented that the windows were purchased for $5,000. Regardless of their origin, these are three of the oldest stained glass windows in the burned over district. The panels were executed by Josef Scherer of the Königliche Glasmalereianstalt in 1854 and took over a year to prepare and install. Scherer was a pioneer in the now referred to “Munich-style” of stained glass that is defined by its large, pictorial scenes with painted and enameled details. The two large windows at the ends of the transepts, scenes of the Holy Family on the north end and the Life of Mary on the south, were made in New York City around the same time. The rest of the windows found in the church were manufactured by the Tyrolese Art Glass Company and installed in 1902, with one exception, the Father Kelly Memorial Window. The two panel window depict St. Charles Borromeo on the left and St. Edward the Confessor on the right with the lives of each saint in small panels surrounding them. This window is a rarity in the Catholic world as it was made by Hardman & Co. of England, a firm whose windows are usually found in Episcopal churches.”
Housing up to 950 Catholics, the sanctuary boasts tall, stoic arches of white and gold that meet at a point, an architectural distinction signifying its neo-Gothic design. Side altars in each of the transepts celebrate St. Anthony of Padua and Therese of Lisieux with stained glass depicting both Mary, and a scene with Jesus as a child doing carpentry work with his father, the namesake of the cathedral. While the altar is a work of art as well, be sure to note the “cathedra” which is a special chair to be used only by the current Bishop. It’s one of the few visual distinctions setting a cathedral apart from some other Catholic churches.
If you look close enough you’ll notice a set of glass doors to the left of the altar. If you’re visiting and want a complete tour, be sure to head through these and ascend a few steps to a small chapel existing behind where the altar is located in the sanctuary. A daily mass and smaller celebrations are held here, though early bishops of the diocese are reported to have used this space as their own private chapel. While there are two plaques set into the floor between pews in the sanctuary honoring the first two bishops of Buffalo, it is directly under this chapel that they are both buried. Also note, there is an Our Lady of Perpetual Help icon just to the left of the entrance to the chapel. It is originally from Crete and actually dates back to the 15th century! If you’re familiar with your Presidential history, you know that the Pan American Expo was held in Buffalo in 1901, and the six-foot tall statue of Mary that was carved in Italy for the expo and now graces the chapel.
While we only had a few places on our tour list to see that day, the churches weren’t really a priority for the itinerary so our time there wrapped up a little quicker than I would’ve preferred. The group began to leave the church and I lagged behind a bit trying to see just one more corner of stained glass and just one more piece of a marble. The one item we hadn’t really gotten much of a chance to explore was the one most visible while exiting.
In the rear of the cathedral perched up in the choir loft is a E. & G.G. Hook and Hastings pipe organ that was first built for the Philadelphia centennial exhibition 1876 where it too won first prize. Bishop Ryan (who followed Bishop Timon in his reign) purchased the organ for a mere $10,000 and it was brought to St. Joseph Cathedral a year later in 1877 where it was installed. Standing three stories in height, the organ is the tallest in the country! While looking at a bunch of pipes from the ground floor is cool, I’m certain that the sound emanating from the 5,300 pipes is really something. Though $10,000 sounds like a whole lot of money, it wouldn’t even have come close to covering the taxes on the $1.75 million restoration the organ underwent in 1990’s. Maybe someday I’ll get to hear what a couple million bucks and three stories sounds like! In the meantime, it was time to be on my way and join the rest of the tour that had already made their way down the street!
*This post previously appeared on ExploringTheBurnedOverDistrict.com
Chris Clemens is the Founder/Publisher of Exploring Upstate. From his hometown in Rochester, he spends as much time as possible connecting with the history, culture, and places that make Upstate New York a land of discovery. Follow him on Twitter at @cpclemens